I loved “The Corrections” and “The Twenty Seventh City”. So, I was both excited and primed for disappointment by “Freedom”, particularly given the pages of glowing reviews at the front of my paperback edition. Too many or too enthusiastic reviews always strike me as the publisher trying a little too hard, but I suppose they must be helpful for the uninitiated reader trying to choose books while browsing a bookshop without any prior knowledge of what is there and who different authors are.
Thankfully, the book was if anything better than I could have expected. Frantzen is clearly a master in the biopic novel stretching across decades of a family’s life but somehow manages to combine this with the trick of being able to write the same novel over again without it becoming stale or predictable. Here he tells the story of Walter and Patty Berglund from childhood through to late middle-age, their friends, children, lovers and neighbours but lets the reader piece things together from a number of different angles.
The book starts with a third person account of the couple’s early married life and their building a home, family and neighbourhood as pioneer inner-city gentrifiers. This section ends with a tantalising glimpse, through the eyes of unfriendly neighbours of a disgrace that has befallen the family since leaving. Instead of moving to describe this, the book then steps back into an autobiography by Patty, written as part of her course of therapy, telling her story through childhood and college and her married life. So, clearly there’s more to her and more darkness than the annoyingly perfect housewife seen by her neighbours in the first section.
The novel builds forward in this way, giving the reader the perspective of just the family member or supporting character that had seemed underdeveloped. And then leaving them on a cliffhanger that Frantzen doesn’t hurry to resolve – what is the trouble that Joey has gotten into that is so bad as to make him open up to Walter after a lifetime of fighting his authority as his father? Slow down, you’ll have to wait until you’ve understood some other things first!
One development from Frantzen’s earlier novels is that Freedom has quite a lot of rather black humour. Not just in the therapy-fuelled detachment of Patty’s autobiography but more generally. There’s even a comedic thread to the 6 year exile of one of the characters that reflects the approach of the cartoon Over the Hedge to the building of large housing developments.
In the book club I have with my wife and a few of our neighbours we usually end off our discussions with thinking about who would play which character in the film adaptation. This can be difficult, particularly if we’ve chosen a non-fiction title and over the dozen or more books we’ve read it is surprising how many times Cate Blanchett has been given a role. Freedom would make an excellent film and I had William Macy playing Walter from early on in the book. Actually, come to think of it, Cate Blanchett would probably do very well for Patty. Strange, I’m not particularly fond of her as an actress but realise now why she’s so successful and how talented she is!
I know I ought to have known better and that I’ve already said in my profile that I usually prefer Booker losers to winners, but I recently read the 2010 winner, Howard Jacobson’s “The Finkler Question”.
I can understand why the book won. It is well written and a great study in the inner lives of a couple of middle-aged men and their elderly former teacher. It is just that the whole thing was so introspective and, well, just unreal for anyone who isn’t wrestling with the concept of Jewish identity in early C21st London as seen from the perspective of a middle-aged man who is projecting his own insecurities onto a Jewish identity that he doesn’t have as a non-Jewish man.
I enjoyed the longlisted “1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” by David Mitchell rather more and am about to embark on Peter Carey’s “Parrot and Olivier in America” hoping to confirm that I prefer the losers.